In the Falling Leaves: The Fear and the Fury of the Negro
Allen M. Price
I’m not real, I’m just like you. You
don’t exist in this society. If you did your
people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights.
You’re not real, if you were you’d have
some status among the nations of the world.
I do not come to you as a reality; I come to
you as the myth because that is what Black
people are: myths. I came from a dream
that the Black man dreamed long ago. I’m
actually a presence sent to you by your
— Sun Ra, “Space in the Place”
I felt a gentle melancholy in the leaves falling from the gnarled oak tree that stood beside me while an insufferable dreariness invaded my vessels and possessed my body. There I was in Newport, Rhode Island, standing in God’s Little Acre, a small corner of the Common Burying Ground comprised of three hundred markers of enslaved and free Africans—the largest and most intact African slave burial ground in the country, watching, fearing a young white man who drove by in an old beat up pickup truck with a huge American and DONT TREAD ON ME flags mounted to the back flapping in the spring breeze. I went there to observe the 195th anniversary, January 7, 1826, of eighty-year-old Occramer Marycoo, known by his slave name Newport Gardner, and his retinue sailing on the brig Vine from Boston to Liberia. Before his voyage to the continent of his birth, he said, “I go to set an example to the youth of my race. I go to encourage the young. They can never be elevated here. I have tried it sixty years—it is in vain.
Could I by my example lead them to set sail, and I die the next day, I should be satisfied.” Where Occramer’s wife, Lima, and three children are buried, I genuflected and pondered on how I keep living in a country that hates me, hates my Black ancestry, that I pledged allegiance to, but doesn’t pledge allegiance to me? I peered up at the purples and oranges and yellows appearing over the main, traversing the slumbering space. Monarchs on wings enraptured rose out of a lilac bush into the sky. Twilight came softly as the setting sun snuggled in the crook of the ocean’s arms. Hearing the breeze winnowing the trees singing my ancestors’ poetry, I wanted them to tell me how this can be, to help me with this fear and fury I was feeling as I went on thinking about the life I had once been living.
I pledged allegiance to the flag five days a week in elementary, junior high, and high school, twelve years of my life. I had tremendous pride in my country. A great deal of how I saw the American flag was through a prism called my upbringing. I didn’t know the flag’s genesis, but I believed in the ideals it represented: fidelity, liberty, and unity. I no longer believe the flag is a representative of those ideals because those ideals, founded on the backs of my ancestors, were based in enslaving them. Author, fellow Rhode Islander, and white supremacist, H.P. Lovecraft described this in his poem, “On the Creation of Niggers”:
When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.
As a Black man who’s been called a nigger, a coon, a high-yellow picaninny, and lived through four years of an openly racist president, I never once became deluded by my fellow white Americans. I treated them as the gifted, blessed people they are, never holding it against them when their mouths opened and poured out racist slurs, or when legislators passed legislation that curtailed and stripped rights from my race, my humanity. My faith unwavering through the protests and petitions I witnessed and partook in all across this beautiful landscape. “We shall overcome.”
Unfortunately, the deadly racism that occurred in America in 2020 changed that. This second decade of the second millennium is giving birth to a new America. The old America is dying, and a new one is kicking in its womb. The birth of a new nation has me realizing for the first time the frailty of democracy, and its longevity. Some may say I am crazy. Others have said it was a matter of time. Fear has driven me here. Fear, fury, and a kind of bewilderment triggered by mourning for the death of my old, deeply flawed, but idealistic nation, a nation that I loved and praised to god almighty. It’s frightening to see this unborn emulating, repeating the deadly past of its mother. This birthing looks to be just as if not more bloody than its mother’s birthing, and I’m worried that we Negroes will suffer the same fate as our ancestors did, ancestors who enabled me with the ability to withstand the fear and the fury America inflicted upon me.
But I have lost the ability to withstand this nagging, unrelenting frenzy of fear and fury that has taken refuge in the crevices of my cranial, has distorted my doctrine of white caste America, and forced me to sit in judgment of them. My fear and my fury are the reaction aroused after watching Ahmaud Arbery hunted down, murdered, spit on, and called a nigger by two white Georgia men; Breonna Taylor mutilated with bullets by all-white Louisville policemen; George Floyd lynched by white Minnesota policeman Derek Chauvin; rabid, racist insurrectionists erecting a makeshift gallows with a noose on the steps of the Capitol before storming the building; and after seeing the picture of republican Georgia governor, Brian Kemp signing the Election Integrity Act of 2021 with seven other white men standing next to him and a picture of a slave plantation hanging on the wall above them. This fear and fury has a kaleidoscope in its eye and every time it turns it takes on these scary shapes that reveal America’s true landscape, a landscape where white supremacists use the American flag as a scare tactic to bully Negroes and dissenters into conforming.
That’s what flooded my mind as the pickup truck sped off down the street with its flags flapping, provoking my fear and fury. But the gnarled oak tree winnowing the buxom wind with winged words lulled my mind into a kind of stasis. This oak with its defending arms raised against attack and wreaths of foliage and piles of fagots in the surrounding copse, stood tall over the gray and heavily weathered headstones. It wasn’t like any tree I knew because trees were inviting; things I trusted and talked to as I frequently did when I was a little kid. Choosing the place had been hard because my backyard had more pretty oaks than any of the yards around.
My choice, I called Brother, and sat under, alone sometimes, sometimes, because I was an only child, with my dog Lady, a Springer Spaniel. There was always this depression of soul that pervaded my spirit of which no pleasurable, poetic sensation could transpose into the sublime. It was the same dreariness I was feeling while genuflecting in the cemetery.
I looked upon the scene before me, gazed up at the new moon, a thin crescent disc slightly illuminated, and realized that that new moon was the same new moon Harriet Tubman had used to help Blacks escape slavery. Her spirit filled with the same wrath and determination as Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, and like Moses, slaves grumbled against her during the journey. When a slave cried out in fear to turn back, Harriet pulled out a gun, and said, “You’ll be free or die a slave!” She knew if anyone turned back, it would put her and them in danger. Harriet’s train never ran off the track or lost a passenger on the Underground Railroad. She led dozens of slaves including her seventy-year-old parents to freedom. To witness such history, such glory I envied the new moon—having nothing to fear, helping my slave ancestors attain the freedom it bears. On the zephyr’s wings the liquid syllables of my ancestor’s poetry gently began caressing, intoxicating me. I closed my eyes, sharpening my senses that were abandoning their defenses, awakening memories of the embarrassing behavior I once engaged in to be accepted.
My mother raised me in the predominantly white town of Warwick so I could get a good education and upbringing, but the unintended consequences of that were I did everything I could to be white in order to be accepted by white caste America, while at the same time worrying, wondering if I go to certain places will I be stared at, or will someone call me a racist epithet. I talked, walked, dressed, and behaved the way my white classmates and neighbors did. If removing the Black part of me got me accepted into white America I was fine with it, and spent over three decades living my life that way. I earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting, a master’s degree in journalism, and attended Harvard Summer School. I interned at Merrill Lynch, Men’s Journal, The Harvard Crimson, and Natural Health magazine, was a pricing analyst for the world’s largest mutual fund company Kemper Scudder Investments, wrote for Muscle & Fitness, and have been published in some of America’s most highly respected literary journals. I volunteered countless hours at food pantries, and landscaped for hospices, receiving an award by the state as one of Rhode Island’s volunteers of the year. I have never broken the law, or been charged or arrested for a crime. I smiled at every white person I walked past even those who appeared displeased by my presence. I followed every nook and cranny, every curve and fold of the waterway trailing the serpentine path of the mighty river white America deems necessary to assimilation in their society. But the country of my birthplace to which I owe my identity flat out refuses to evolve a place for me. I hate myself for doing what I did to be accepted. The need of my country’s approval has been the heaviest of my trials. Because no matter how thick my love has been, white America’s love for me has always been thin. “Thin love ain’t no love at all,” said Sethe to Paul D in Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved. “Thin love plays it safe.”
As thick as my love has been for America, that love was, literally, beaten out of me by police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds, and by those racist pro-Trump white nationalist mothers and fathers who with their sons and daughters used flagpoles bearing the United States flag to stab the beating heart of American democracy, and by those white Georgia politician men who slashed voting rights and criminalized giving water to a ninety-year-old waiting in line to vote, using the same racist abstract tactics that senior adviser to president Ronald Reagan, Lee Atwater used—“You start out in 1954 by saying ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger’ Atwater said in an interview with Alexander Lamis, a political scientist at Case Western Reserve University. “By 1968 you can’t say—nigger—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… We want to cut this, is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’” After hearing Atwater say this, I understood why Belize said, in Tony Kushner’s Angel’s in America, “I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. Nothing but a bunch of big ideas and stories and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word free to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on Earth sounds less like freedom to me. You come to room 1013 over at the hospital, Louis, I’ll show you America. Terminal, crazy, and mean. I live in America, Louis. I don’t have to love it. You do that. Everybody’s gotta love somethin’.”
It is so hard for me to love America because I am so upset with it, so deathly afraid of it, of what my innocent and criminal fellow white citizens may do to me because of Black ancestry. The apathy and ignorance they have carried for centuries is what produced the video of Derick
Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd. It’s the same apathy and ignorance that produced the 1963 photo of a white police officer kneeling on a Black woman’s neck in Birmingham, Alabama. In the words of James Baldwin, “I’m terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think us human. I base this on their conduct not on what they say. And this means that they have become, in themselves, moral monsters.” The monstrous way white caste America treated my ancestors, stringing them up like a side of veal, turning them into strange fruit, their blood dripping on the leaves, on the roots of the trees, the tatters of their clothes flapping in the breeze after crows plucked at their bodies, I shudder to think what they’d do to me after seeing what they did to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Jacob Blake, and U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, while dressed in uniform.
On December 5, 2020, Caron was pulled over by two Virginian police officers for having a temporary license plate in the rear window of his newly purchased Chevrolet Tahoe SUV. He drove a mile and a half to a well-lit gas station before stopping for safety, and set up the camera on his phone, afraid that the police officers might do something to him. They shouted at him to put his arms out of the window, which he did, and then they approached him with guns blazing. Caron asked, “What’s going on, why are your weapons drawn?” “Get out the car!” the officers hollered. “What’s going on?” Caron asked again. “What’s going on is you’re fixin to ride the lightning, son,” one officer said to him, which is a line from The Green Mile, a movie about a Black man facing execution by the electric chair. “I’m honestly afraid to get out of the car,” Caron said. “Yeah you should be,” the other officer said. The officers then threatened to arrest Caron for not listening to their orders, and continued shouting conflicting orders at him, telling him to put his hands out of the window while telling him to open the door and get out. “I’m actively serving this country and this is how you’re going to treat me?” Caron said. Seconds later, an officer sprays him in his face with pepper spray. Caron kept his hands out of the car window as the officers yell at him to get out, visibly reeling from the spray. “I don’t even want to reach for my seatbelt, can you please? … My hands are out, can you please — look, this is really messed up,” Caron said as he tried to get out of the car.
Seventy-five years ago, a similar but deadly police encounter occurred. On February 12, 1946, Sergeant Isaac Woodward, a twenty-seven-year-old army veteran who had served in the South Pacific for fifteen months and earned a battle star for extraordinary bravery under fire, was returning home on a bus to Winnsboro, South Carolina to see his wife whom he hadn’t seen in several years. He was returning from a war he helped win: WWII. He asked the bus driver if he could stop the bus so he could use the bathroom. The driver called him a nigger and told him to go sit down. Isaac cursed him back and said you don’t need to talk to me that way. The bus driver was furious, and at the next town, he stopped, and went looking for police officers to have Isaac removed from the bus. Isaac stepped off of the bus and as he tried to explain, the police chief pulled out his blackjack and hit Isaac over the head with it. The police chief and the other police officers dragged him out of sight and beat him blind. They didn’t beat his eyes out; they put the stick in the sockets and twisted them out. One officer held his gun on Isaac while the other one beat him unconscious. Isaac did not resist and let them beat him for fear that they would arrest him for resisting. They poured whiskey over him to say he was drunk and arrested him for disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and being drunk. He spent the night in jail. When he woke up the next morning, he couldn’t see. They took him to the judge, and he was levied a fine, but he couldn’t see to sign the paperwork that was put before him. He was examined and it was determined that he would never see again. Like Caron, Isaac was wearing an army uniform. He had medals on his chest. And a final paycheck from the U.S. army in the amount of $695. All the symbols of sacrifice and service to America but it didn’t matter.
These racist encounters with police brought back memories of when a white policeman pulled me over in October 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. It was a weekday, nine-thirty at night. I was heading to my home in Cranston from Narragansett after having spent a few hours writing in my favorite place. I took the scenic route as I always do, which took me through East Greenwich where I was pulled over. I was driving a 2006 Honda Element. An SUV that looks like a rectangular box. It’s great for stacking things like kayaks and bicycles and large parcels because all the seats come up. It’s not exactly the kind of vehicle you speed in or show off in, so I didn’t know why he was pulling me over. There was no one on the street. I didn’t know where the police officer came from. And I instantly got nervous. I was also afraid because I didn’t have a mask, and I didn’t want to open my window. I didn’t want to get out of car. I didn’t want to get COVID-19. So when he came to my passenger-side window I didn’t roll it down. I turned on the lights inside of my car.
“What do you want?” I asked him through my closed window. The officer proceeded to open my door.
“It’s locked,” I yelled, stunned as he tried to open my door with no mask. “What do you want?” I yelled again. “I don’t have a mask to put on.”
“You we’re going fifty-two in a forty-five,” he said.
I thought to myself, he’s bothering me for this? It’s nine-thirty at night, there’s no one around, and we’re in the middle of a plague the likes of which we haven’t seen in a hundred years. I proceeded to open my glove compartment to get my registration, and then took my wallet out of my pocket to get my license. I cracked opened the window just enough to slide them through and then closed it right quick.
“That’s a fancy wallet,” he said through the closed window.
“No, it’s not,” I replied calmly. “I got it on Amazon. It cost fifteen dollars.” “That little latch came with it?”
“Yes,” I said demonstrating it to him. I thought to myself, is he for real? What the hell do you really want? Is he pulling me over just to annoy me because I’m a Negro?
“If everything comes back fine, you’re free to go,” he said then walked back to his patrol.
“Of course it’s gonna come back fine,” I said out loud in the car. “This is ridiculous.” After about five minutes he came back, and said, “Your registration is the old kind.
They’ve updated them. It’s not on Manila paper anymore, it’s on white. But you’re not due to renew your registration until next year. I saw that in the computer. And the insurance card you gave me is an old insurance card, it has expired dates on it, but I can see in the computer that you have insurance and it’s current.”
“You can see all that on your computer?” I asked. I wanted so badly to say, then why the hell are you asking me for these things if you can see it all on your computer?
“I put hand sanitizer on my hands so your stuff is clean,” he said as I cracked open the window to grab my paperwork. I closed it fast.
“Thank you,” I said and put it on the floor, grabbed a few hand wipes from my bottle on the passenger seat, and wiped my hands.
The whole drive home I kept saying to myself, he pulled me over for nothing, and may have exposed me to COVID. It was a reminder that no matter what I do, no matter how educated I become, how wealthy, how respectful or intrinsically decent a person I am, America will always see me as a Negro. Equality, acceptance, and love won’t come to us if America isn’t based in harmony with the natural order, the natural law of equality, the way it is in nature.
Negroes rich and poor, great and small, must face the same sufferings. Whether President or pediatrician, billionaire or Rhode Scholar, astronaut or actor, versed in the arts and sciences or mentally uninstructed, we are still seen as having lower IQs, lower impulse control, and higher testosterone levels than our white counterparts. Negroes are still pulled over because we aren’t supposed to reach that zenith of public glory. And if we do, we didn’t do it by merit; that Mercedes-Benz CL5 or Cadillac Escalade the Negro is driving had to have been taken away from some good, law-abiding, hard-working, white American family man whose job was stolen by a Black man. From W.E.B. DuBois to Senator Tim Scott to Harvard professors Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Ronald S. Sullivan, a common thread strings them together. They’re all Black, they’re all wealthy, they’re all well-educated, and they’ve all been arrested or pulled over for activity that warranted not even a slap on the wrist. There’s no freedom to be found in financial, material success for us. It never has and never will give us the inherent superiority that white caste America believes it has. This one-hundred-year anniversary of The Tulsa Race Massacre, June 1, 1921, the day mobs of whites murdered hundreds of Negroes, and burned to the ground Black Wall Street, the most affluent Black neighborhood in America, is a reminder of that.
There are no graves for most of the dead Black Tulsa residents. Their bodies are forever lost. Thirteen jars filled with ash and dirt and bone rest in the basement of Tulsa’s Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church—an unsettled repose for the victims. Those that survived were left homeless with nothing but heaps of ash—a city burned off the map. That violent episode of dispossession festered in my mind like an unhealed wound while I was genuflecting in God’s Little Acre. The image sent a shiver through my frame and over my skin like still water when a light zephyr passes across it. My heart stomped away in my chest. Then I heard thunder from the cloudless ethereal arch stretched above me. The stars poked bright little holes through the curtain of the night. The falling leaves perfumed with celestial balms lay upon the brown leaves that carpeted the ground of the gnarled oak tree. The night sea, bathed in untroubled calms, entranced me. In the moonlight, stardust caught—a portion of the heavens which I clutched.
I peered down and was completely unnerved to see brown faces in the leaves. I noticed how a brown face closed, and how, when a brown face opened, a light seemed to go on everywhere. The miraculous luster of the brown cadaverous hue startled and awed me. The vision hit me down in my hopelessness, down in my sullenness. I had not had time to feel the vivid force of these sensations which oppressed me. Now, both began to rise in me. I lifted my head and into my eyes appeared the sable souls of those brown faces in the oak grove—leaving me with a whirl of phantasmagoric illusions for truth. I stood up on the rock wall running along the side of the cemetery only to see an endless procession of souls rising out of the falling leaves, rejoicing in an area where no grave markers had ever been. This seemed to be the gathering place for all the dregs that once lived, but these dregs were my Black ancestors. Believing their fate resigned, they sang out from full hearts and bursting throats:
Oh, freedom over me!
And before I’d be a slave
I’ll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free
I held still in my mortal frame, feeling tears apace pursue each other down my raven face as their memories marred my mind. Their souls once bodies hanging from the gnarled oak tree found passage through the midrib vein in the falling leaves, to wake every eye and reveal our ancestry in every tree and plant and flowery race. Deliverance from centuries of chilling horror that ran the land. Over futile odds they cast their anguish into the flames where the pealing thunder had shaken the main. They celebrated the ceasing of the mendacious and licentious wickedness that had roamed the American Hemisphere. In the ruins of the vanquished land the germ of the civilization was smoldering. The embers they were kindling into a conflagration of emancipation. A new America was coming.
I watched my staid ancestors with wonder and respect. Then I tore my eyes away from the vision, this imaginary vista of the future. It was eerie and instructive to realize that, though they were my ancestors, I couldn’t expect them to respond to any human request from me. I stepped off of the rock wall and padded over to the vista that had disappeared. The hollow sound with which the slumbering echoes responded to my footfalls made night’s leaden scepter seal the vista and cease the song of my ancestors. The vista, other than accidental, had awoken my senses, muffled by the mechanics of my civilization and worn into despair by its brutalities. The mantled sorrow that became my lifelong companion released me from my fear and my fury. I felt my Black consciousness connecting, merging with nature’s. I husbanded that moment—the deceptive landscape, the instant awareness of future, the loud kicking of my heart. With my mind groveling, I thought to examine the relaxed state of consciousness that my body had now encapsulated. I knew what fear and fury felt like; this was not that. Then it slapped me: I was free in a way I had never been, and it created such an odd sensation. Not satisfaction, not contentment, not a surfeit of joy. It was a purer delight. I realized how strangling my fear and my fury had been, knowing my life as a Negro could end at any moment because of my Blackness. I realized then that I was not the problem, that the Negro is not the problem. The Negro Problem, as argued in the collection of essays by such Black elites as, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. DuBois cannot be solved by Negroes redefining or improving our image and identity through racial uplift ideology. I did it for more than forty years, and all I did was shrink myself in the teeth of white America’s terror.
I’ve questioned if I belong in this country because the racism, which white caste America invented to safeguard its purity, is destroying the country they claim to love so dearly. In this country, “There is the great, vast, brooding, welcoming and bloodstained land, beautiful enough to astonish and break the heart,” James Baldwin wrote in No Name in the Street. “The land seems nearly to weep beneath the burden of this civilization’s unnameable excrescences. The people and the children wander blindly through their forest of billboards, antennae, Coca-Cola bottles, gas stations, drive-ins, motels, beer cans, music of a strident and invincible melancholy, stilted wooden porches, snapping fans, aggressively blue-jeaned buttocks, strutting crotches, pint bottles, condoms, in the weeds, rotting automobile corpses, brown as beetles, earrings flashing in the gloom of bus stops: over all there seems to hang a miasma of lust and longing and rage.”
I used to wonder what my future was in this country, but I have a new buoyancy, a revolutionary fervor. I don’t know how long this new buoyancy will last or when the fear and fury might revisit me, but what I do know is that the white racists involved in the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, in blocking the Emmitt Till Antilynching Bill, in signing a restrictive voting bill while a slave plantation hung on the wall, and in the January 6th insurrection aren’t coming to the future. Not everyone can come into the future.
Lincoln was the future. Lincoln still is the future. And that imaginary vista of the future I saw steals over me on these calm, peaceful times—of these racist, dark times being replaced by bright ones—of the children of all races, colors, sexes, orientations, and religions growing up in the steadfast observance of unity. We sit, drawn together in happiness, under the oak trees of our native nation, a bouquet of humanity pledging allegiance to a country that breathes forth the true spirit, the true nature of the planet. I lose myself in this fancy. But there are days when it gets broken off by the rushing vision of my ancestors’ brown faces still in the falling leaves waiting to be freed.
Allen M. Price’s essay “The Jailed Down Negro” is winner of the 2021 Columbia Journal winter contest. His essay “Black Landscapes Matter” is a 2023 Pushcart Prize nominee by upstreet, as is his essay “This Is My American Country” in Zone 3. His essay “Antebellum Redux” is a finalist in the 2022 Dogwood Literary Prize in nonfiction. His fiction and nonfiction work appears or is forthcoming in North American Review, Sweet, The Masters Review, Terrain.org, Shenandoah, Hobart, Transition Magazine, Entropy, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Juked, River Teeth, The Fourth River (chosen by guest editor Ira Sukrungruang), Jellyfish Review, Bayou, Sou’wester, Cosmonauts Avenue, Gertrude Press, and The Saturday Evening Post, among others. An excerpt of his screenplay appears in The Louisville Review. His chapbook The Unintended Consequences of Haitian Reparation appears in Hawai’i Review. He has an MA in journalism from Emerson College.